The Beginner’s Guide To Safe Urban Running

The Beginner’s Guide To Safe Urban Running

Running in the heart of a metropolitan city can be a lot different than running in a quiet neighbourhood or on a trail. The scenery can be an obstacle in its own right, and there are potential dangers that lurk literally around every corner. Fortunately, if you know how to navigate them, running in the city can be a great way to stay in shape.

Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.

First: Always practice the basics

Running safely in the inner city isn’t that different when it comes down to the basics. It is still the same form of exercise, after all; you’re just doing it in an area that’s less conducive to it. So don’t forget the little things that keep you safe everywhere:

  • Stay alert and keep your eyes up so you can spot any hazards around you
  • Look both ways before crossing a street (duh)
  • If there’s a designated jogging path or footpath, use it
  • Keep your distance from the curb or road as much as you can
  • Wear bright colours, or even reflectors (especially at night)

Also, don’t forget some of the other essentials for getting your run off on the right foot. Get a good pair of running shoes so you’re not hurting your feet, lace them up to accommodate your type of feet, and start out slow so you don’t pull something. This guide will focus on lots of city-specific tips, but don’t forget the important stuff that applies to runners of all stripes.

Plot the safest route possible

The city is a living, breathing place that’s filled with potential hazards for runners. So it’s doubly important that you plan out every aspect of your run before you go, instead of taking off on a whim.

As this Runners World blog post explains, the most important step is to watch out for “danger spots” within your area of the city. “Danger spots” are unpopulated areas with poor visibility where someone could easily attack you. Use Google Maps or a running map tool to carve a trail you know will keep you away from danger spots. If you’re not sure, map it out, then take a drive or walk with a buddy to scout it out.

Location isn’t the only thing that matters: consider the time of day you’re going to run, and try to avoid times with heavy pedestrian and car traffic. When there are fewer pedestrians walking around, you have fewer obstacles to dodge on the footpath. When there are fewer cars driving around, it’s easier to see the road (and you’re less likely to get hit). Plus, you’ll breathe in less car exhaust when you’re gasping for air on the home stretch. So when you plan out your run, consider running in the early morning, or after the evening rush hour when there are fewer cars and people on the road. Just make sure you still stick to areas with open visibility.

Take the right gear with you

Once you’ve plotted your route, you’ll want to gather a few items to bring with you. It might sound uncomfortable, and you might have to get creative with how you do it, but there are some essentials you should always run in the city with:

  • Personal identification of some kind (ID, driver’s licence, etc.)
  • Pertinent medical information (medical conditions, allergies, etc.)
  • Some money for emergency water, food, or a bus ride (stick it in your shoe if you have to)

If you’re thinking that carrying all of that sounds like a pain, you might want to look into getting a Road ID. The Road ID is a specialised item for runners that you can wear on your wrist, around your neck, or even attach to your shoes shoelaces, and it lists all of the most important information in one place. For example, it might list your name, where you’re from, some emergency contact numbers, and say that you have no known allergies. There are also Road IDs you can attach to your fitness tracker so you don’t have to wear an extra bracelet.

It’s not a bad idea to bring your phone with you, either. You may already do this so you can listen to music or track your running with apps, but it can be a life-saver when you need to make an emergency call. You could call the police if you felt like someone was following you, call an ambulance if you’ve been hurt, or even call a friend to pick you up if you pushed yourself a little too hard. And if you don’t want to bring your shiny, expensive new phone, remember that most old phones can still make emergency calls, even if they aren’t activated.

Consider running without headphones (or keep the volume low)

This will probably be a struggle for most you (myself included), but running without any headphones is the safest way to run in the city. There are a couple reasons for this: music and podcasts sounding off in your ears makes it hard to hear what’s going on around you; you can’t focus as well on your environment because you’re focused on what you’re listening to; and last but not least, a lot of people slowly damage their hearing by cranking the volume up way too high due to traffic noise.

Music is amazing for maintaining your energy and stride, but you might surprised by how refreshing it is to run without the help of any music or gadgets. You get to focus on the pure joy of running, pay more attention to the feedback your body is sending, and you get a chance to really explore your thoughts as you run. Think of it as a chance to meditate while you exercise.

If you’re not convinced, there are still some other options. You can turn your volume as low as possible so you still hear your music, but can still hear what’s happening around you. My trick for this is seeing if I can hear someone else talking to me while my music is playing. Talk to a roommate, a family member, or turn on your TV and make sure you could at least hear someone warn you of danger.

You might also want to consider investing in a pair of open ear headphones. Open ear headphones use bone conduction to send sound to your brain, so you can still hear what’s going on around you and get the best of both worlds. You could also go with a headphone design that sits in your ear, but doesn’t “plug in” to your ear, like the Sony MDR-J10 headphones. Last but not least, if you have an iPhone, you can download the Awareness app that filters sound in sound from your environment while you listen to music.

Consider running with a buddy (especially at night)

You know how in TV and movies people always get mugged or attacked at night? Yeah, that’s because more muggings happen at night. If you’re going to run at night, or any other time it’s dark, you’re better off running with a buddy. Lauren Hargrave at Active explains:

Two people are harder to control than one, so attackers are less likely to strike and if they do, you’ve just doubled your chance of survival. If you don’t have someone to run with, get a dog. Or borrow a dog. Not only does it make you a less attractive target, dogs can sometimes sense danger before we can.

Obviously, a tiny yippity dog isn’t ideal for that, but you get the idea. Attackers want things to be easy. Having another body around adds plenty of complications, and will likely deter many criminals.

But what about if you know the attacker? Or what if the attacker doesn’t go after people randomly? Stalkers and acquaintance-turned-bad guys are an unfortunate reality, especially for women. There are a few tips you can use to avoid or handle these threats, especially if you like to run when it’s darker:

  • Alter your route regularly so bad people don’t know where you’ll be
  • Don’t share too much information about where you’re running on social media
  • Consider taking self-defence classes
  • Carry pepper spray

Lastly, and most importantly, Nathan Freeburg at Minneapolis Running recommends you always tell someone where you’re going. Even if it’s just a text or a message to someone you trust online. You could also leave a note to your roommate or family giving them a general indication of where you’re running.

Run on the “correct” side of the road

If you’re a regular runner, you might already know that you should run against traffic, and this is even more important for city runners. Running against traffic lets you see the cars coming toward you so you can react and get out of the way if one loses control. Sometimes, however, this rule is ineffective, and even unsafe. This study suggests that instead you should run on whichever side of the road that:

  • Gives you best visibility (ahead and behind)
  • Gives oncoming cars the best visibility of you
  • Has a dedicated running path
  • Has at least a footpath or shoulder
  • Has an exit (somewhere you can dive or run in the event a car comes careening toward you)

Don’t always assume that running against traffic is the best option. You want drivers to see you just as much, if not more, than you can see them. Keep out of the road if possible and always be ready to escape somewhere.

Approach intersections and streets with caution

Crossing busy intersections is the most present danger for city runners. If a runner isn’t paying attention, they can be hit by a car. If a driver isn’t paying attention, a runner can be hit by a car. See how runners lose this battle no matter what? Besides looking both ways, there are a couple things you should do at every intersection.

James Raia at Active suggests you run behind vehicles when possible (especially vehicles in the turn lane). Just because they stopped doesn’t mean that they see you and know you’re about to run by. Raia also suggests you try to make eye contact with drivers as you enter the intersection and make sure they acknowledge you. I like to wave or put my hand up in a “hey there, I’m here” kind of way just to be sure. I’ve almost been hit by three cars (one actually gave me a love tap), but it hasn’t come so close since I started waving.

It’s also a bad idea to try and beat a crosswalk light. You’re gambling that you’ll make it in time, and relying on your body a little too much. You could trip, stumble, or have some other “d’oh” moment and be on the ground when the lights change. Plus, you’re rushing from out of most drivers’ view so they probably won’t know you’re there when they put the pedal to the metal. Wait at the light for the next little white man telling you it’s ok. If you want to keep your heart rate up, jog in place. Or better yet, do other exercises like pushups and squats while you wait.

Never make assumptions about drivers either. Don’t assume that they see you, or that they will actually stop at a stop sign. Approach every crossing with caution so you can live to run another day.

Be courteous when passing people on the footpath

It always pays to be courteous, especially when you have to share the footpath with a slew of other pedestrians going about their lives. Follow these basic courtesy rules when you’re running in your city to avoid accidents or unnecessary confrontations:

  • Run single file if you’re running with someone else, or at least go single file when approaching other people
  • Stick to the right and pass on the left, just like you’re a car on a road
  • The Road Runners Club of America recommends you alert pedestrians when you are passing them with simple “on your left” or “excuse me”

That last one is particularly important. In my own personal experience, I’ve “snuck up” on people that didn’t realise I was there, almost triggering an act of self-defence. Lastly, if you think someone isn’t paying attention, they probably aren’t. As you approach them, it’s better to be safe than sorry and slow down to make sure there’s no collision. The same goes for children running wild on the footpath. Give them plenty of space and slow down.

Trust your instincts (most of the time)

You already know in the back of your mind that the city can be dangerous, and you probably have an idea of when something doesn’t feel right. Feel, don’t think, and trust your instincts. Jen Matz at Walk Jog Run explains:

If a street looks too dark, don’t run down it. If a person walking towards you gives you the heebie jeebies, turn around. If you have a feeling like someone is following you, call the police. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so trust your gut.

There’s no point in risking your safety just so you can exercise. That said, there are some instincts you need be more wary of trusting. Sometimes your instincts might tell you that you’re more capable than you really are, and that can be dangerous.

Katie McDonald Neitz at Runner’s World explains it as the “invincibility complex” that a lot of runners are affected by. You feel strong because you run regularly, so you might assume you can run anywhere, anytime, and no one would be able to get to you. Additionally, you’re dedicated, so might put your training ahead of your personal safety. You might feel like you can do anything, but keep a level head and listen to your safety instincts instead.

Lifehacker’s Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.

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